We've got orcas all wrong and it's killing them

Calling recent orca encounters "attacks" is the latest affront in a long history of villainizing these animals

Published January 8, 2024 12:00PM (EST)
Updated January 8, 2024 2:54PM (EST)
Close up view of a female killer whale swimming in blue water (Getty Images/wildestanimal)
Close up view of a female killer whale swimming in blue water (Getty Images/wildestanimal)

In November, killer whales again made headlines after sinking their fourth boat in the Strait of Gibraltar in two years. Dramaticized YouTube videos were quick to anthropomorphize the killer whales (Orcinus orca) involved in the encounters, saying the behavior was a form of vengeance for keeping the animals in captivity. Others took to social media to link the anti-capitalist movement and the orcas interacting with yachts and other luxury boats: “Eat the rich,” read one widely circulated meme depicting the orcas. 

Although one study hypothesized the behavior could have been sparked by one orca’s negative encounter with a boat, most scientists familiar with killer whales suspect these highly intelligent, social and curious animals are simply engaging in a new form of play. More than 350 encounters between boats and orcas have been tallied since 2020 off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula. The recent incidents involve killer whales nudging the boat’s rudder, sometimes until it falls off, almost like unlocking a puzzle, said Luke Rendell, a marine mammal researcher at the University of St. Andrews. It also appears to be a behavior that is taught from one orca to the next. 

“It may well be that they started interacting with these things and then realized that if you hit them around enough, they give you a toy,” Rendell told Salon in a video call. “I would explain it as an expression of their natural curiosity, which has led to them developing not a new food source, but a source of toys and games.”

Technically the largest member of the dolphin family, not actually whales, killer whales are also categorized as "toothed whales." It gets a little confusing. Regardless, they are fierce apex predators at the top of the food chain with hunting tactics to match. They can drown whale calves in front of their mothers. Some types of orcas notoriously “play with their food,” with many videos documenting them tossing seals back and forth along a shoreline. Yet while they are certainly a formidable animal if you are on their menu, there have been no documented cases of a killer whale attacking or killing a human being in the wild. Humans once even cooperated with orcas to hunt whales centuries ago.

 One 1937 killer whale encounter was described as “a tale of murder and marine slaughter,” even though the orcas were only hunting seals and no humans were harmed.

Still, the threat is real to many sailors whose livelihood depends on their ships. There are some things sailors can do to reduce the damage done to their boats during these encounters, but some have resorted to shooting fireworks or other projectiles at this particular group of orcas, which are considered endangered. Some estimates suggest as few as about 50 of them survive in the region.

The violent reaction traces back to the earliest documented interactions between humans and killer whales, in which sailors who saw killer whales as threats — not only to themselves but to the fish they made their living off of — and shot them, said Jason Colby, a historian, and author of “Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator.” This behavior became so prevalent that by the time people started capturing orcas in the 1970s to put them on display in places like SeaWorld, close to one-quarter of those captured had been shot, according to David Kirby in his book "Death at SeaWorld."

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Killer whales began to be seen as threatening to humans, even though, ironically, humans would show themselves to be the bigger threat to killer whales across the next century, contaminating oceans with chemicals that made it difficult for some species to reproduce and killing off their food sources. One 1937 killer whale encounter documented in The San Francisco Examiner was described as “a tale of murder and marine slaughter,” even though the orcas were only hunting seals and no humans were harmed. 

“These interactions with boats [today] are making people step back and return to some of the fears or claims that are quite old and have been disregarded for a long time,” Colby told Salon in a phone interview. “Even though we don’t know why animals are doing things, human beings make stories out of them to try and find meaning.”

"The fact that they’ve never attacked a human in the wild is really telling."

Once killer whales began to be taken into captivity, they never attacked their captors — even when humans killed family members in front of them, said Deborah Giles, the research director of the nonprofit Wild Orca and a research scientist at the University of Washington. 

“Especially given what we know about the development of their brains and the fact that they are incredibly intelligent, socially bonded animals, the fact that they’ve never attacked a human in the wild is really telling,” Giles told Salon in a phone interview.

Tilikum, the orca who was the main subject of the film “Blackfish,” did famously kill his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Other than Brancheau, orcas in captivity have been involved in three other deaths. But as was depicted in the film, Tilikum arrived at SeaWorld friendly and eager to learn, and the harsh conditions of living in captivity seemed to wear him down over time. At the time of Brancheau’s death, Tilikum had been in captivity for 27 years. 

Ultimately, the film illuminated the conditions of captivity for these giant and intelligent sea creatures, leading to SeaWorld promising to end its orca breeding program in 2016. Although there are still more than 50 orcas in captivity, killer whale performances will eventually be phased out. 

If there is any silver lining to the captivity industry, it’s that it allowed humans to interact with and witness these creatures’ intelligence and grace up-close. The danger of these interactions in the Atlantic is that it will erase the connection humans have to these animals and that we will revert to seeing them as a threat, despite no evidence that the orcas are trying to harm humans.

“People shooting at the whales is exactly the opposite of what should be happening,” Giles said. “We really need to be recognizing that when we're in the water, we're in their yard, their kitchens and their living rooms. We’re in their habitat.”

Killer whales, also known as orcas (or their Latin name, Orcinus orca, which translates to “of the kingdom of the dead”) have been the target of human anthropomorphization since humans bestowed upon them this demonic name. Yet even the most ruthless behaviors are often misunderstood by humans. Videos of killer whales “playing with their food” can actually be mothers teaching their young to hunt, and inexperienced calves more often let prey slip through their grasp. It can also be a form of practice to sharpen their hunting skills, like a cat might do with a mouse.

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Even play, like what some scientists believe is the motivation behind the killer whales’ interactions with boats in the Atlantic, has evolutionary advantages. And killer whales do plenty of it beyond their interactions with humans. They also play tag with seaweed, Rendell says, and, in a still unexplained cultural phenomenon in the ‘80s, a few pods once took to carrying dead salmon on their heads.

In 1977, orcas were implicated in the sinking of the Guia 3 ship, but there is no documented evidence of a series of encounters like what’s been going on since 2020, said Erich Hoyt, a research fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation and author of “Orca: The Whale Called Killer.” Orcas are cultural animals and these encounters with ships are likely another “fad” spreading among this population of orcas in the region, similar to the seaweed tag or salmon hats.

“They are certainly not predatory attacks, as they never show any interest in going after humans,” Hoyt told Salon in an email. “After they’ve played with the rudder, smashed it or broken it off, etc., the orcas leave the area.”

To fear and antagonize these animals makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. As humans, we tend to see ourselves as top predators. But when coming face to face with a species that dwarfs us and possesses some of the traits of intelligence and consciousness that we once thought were unique to our own, like sharing culture or going through menopause, we rightfully feel vulnerable and small.

As humans’ habitat continues to expand across all corners of the globe, these interactions will inevitably become more common with not just orcas, but many other species. How we react to them is up to us: Do we revert to the violent defensives we relied on in the past? Or do we find some better way to coexist?

“These are the times where human beings are reminded of their physical frailty and that, when you strip away their tools, they're not actually the top dog,” Colby said. “It's pretty powerful and kind of metaphorical that you see these orcas going after rudders and sort of disabling the technology that human beings use to control marine space.”

By Elizabeth Hlavinka

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Animal Culture Animals Biology Killer Whales Orcas Whales